Can a big house be green?

A contentious issue with a definitive answer: “It depends.”

There’s no doubt that houses have been getting bigger. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 26 percent of all new single-family houses built in 2007 were 3,000 square feet or larger. In some prosperous markets a 10,000-squaref-foot house doesn’t raise any eyebrows.

Even with all the sustainable features known to man, a 10,000-square-foot house built for a family of four can’t really be considered green. The reason is simple: It consumes a disproportionate share of materials and resources. The same house for an extended family of 20 would seem a lot greener.

At the heart of the green building movement is the idea that resources are finite, no matter how much money you have. Lowering consumption is an important benchmark in sustainable building, and that thinking extends to the materials that go into a house as well as the energy that’s required to heat and cool it.

An extravagantly large house that’s energy efficient and healthy is certainly better than one that wastes energy and is loaded with contaminants. But that doesn’t entirely justify the excesses of building a house big enough for 10 when only two people will live there.

The LEED for Homes rating system addresses this issue directly. Big houses are penalized; small ones are rewarded. It’s “neutral” size recommendations range from 900 square feet for a one-bedroom house to 2,850 square feet for a five-bedroom house. These numbers won’t work for every family, but they’re a reasonable place to start.

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